Georgia’s squeaker over Notre Dame on Saturday night was a great win, but it wasn’t a great game, as the two teams combined to punt the ball 17 times, eight by Georgia, in a largely defensive struggle.
No wonder that, after the game, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he was thrilled with the result, but wasn’t thrilled with how his team played, especially being flagged 12 times for 127 yards. Granted, a couple of those flags were questionable, but the Dawgs still made a lot of mistakes.
“We tried to give that game away in so many ways,” Smart told Chuck Dowdle in his postgame locker room interview for UGA’s sports radio network.
On the face of it, the Dawgs made too many mistakes to win, and, yet, somehow, they did.
That’s chiefly due to a tenacious performance by the defense, which shut down a Fighting Irish running game that had racked up 422 yards the previous week against Temple. Georgia allowed the Irish only 55 yards on the ground and just 265 yards of total offense. (A susceptibility to mid-range passes was the Georgia defense’s only problem during the game.)
There were quite a few Bulldogs defensive stars. J.R. Reed, a transfer from Tulsa, led the Dawgs with 9 tackles; Roquan Smith had 7 tackles and a sack (and in the first half seemed to be just about everywhere on the field); Lorenzo Carter made 7 tackles, a sack, 2 forced fumbles and recovered 2 fumbles, one of the latter forced by Davin Bellamy on a sack to secure the victory for Georgia.
Notre Dame managed to convert just 3 of its 17 third downs.
Of course, it’s a good thing Georgia’s defense was so smothering, because the Dawgs offense wasn’t much more effective than the Irish, converting just 4 of its 17 third-down attempts.
An inconsistent performance by a still-not-jelled offensive line, which was very spotty in pass protection, was a big part of the offensive struggles. Run-blocking was better. Georgia’s running game, alternating Nick Chubb and Sony Michel just about evenly, had its moments, mainly on a couple of scoring drives.
But, in his first career start, freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, subbing for the injured Jacob Eason, was, well, a freshman. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 141 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.
Fromm overthrew several passes (including one intended for a wide-open Terry Godwin that likely would have been a TD), made some faulty decisions and fumbled a handoff, then tried unsuccessfully to pick up the ball rather than just falling on it. He did suffer a couple of drops of perfectly-placed passes, but also notched a couple of completions thanks to amazing catches by acrobatic receivers Godwin and Javon Wims.
In other words, Fromm looked much like Eason last year, with lots of so-called freshman moments. Noted Smart to Dowdle after the game: “He’s a freshman. He’s going to have freshman moments. I just hate that I’m living through it two years in a row.”
However, Fromm was part of a couple of the game’s highlights on key passes. Godwin’s one-handed, falling-backwards, just-got-a-foot-down TD catch conjured up memories of the great A.J. Green, while Wims again went up high to secure a Fromm pass on a key 31-yard play in Georgia’s final scoring drive.
Still, Jim Chaney’s play-calling also was mostly reminiscent of last year, which isn’t a good thing. At times, he showed a lack of faith in his running game; and, in the passing game, he called too many throws to the sideline, which are difficult for even an experienced QB to complete. He also relied too much on direct snaps to backs or receivers in the Wild Dawg, which has proved spectacularly ineffective for Georgia, probably because the Dawgs haven’t shown opponents they can do anything but run or hand off out of that formation.
On the positive side, Georgia never buckled, coming back from trailing 3-0, 10-3, 16-10 and 19-17. The Bulldogs didn’t take their first lead of the game, 17-16, until the 4:34 mark in the third quarter, and finally went ahead for good with 3:34 remaining, when kicker Rodrigo Blankenship (who learned this week he’s finally been placed on scholarship) made it 20-19.
Other high points for the Dawgs included a 90-yard kickoff return by Elijah Holyfield (negated by a very iffy holding call), a 40-yard run by freshman back D’Andre Swift, and the roadworthiness of the UGA fan base, which amazed the college football world by the way it showed up in force.
Although no official figure on how many Georgia fans were among the 77,622 in attendance has been released, the stadium looked nearly half red, with Smart estimating 40,000 Dawgs fans were there. As NBC analyst Doug Flutie noted at one point in the Notre Dame telecast, “This is almost a 50/50 crowd.”
At the start of the fourth quarter, Dawgs fans in attendance at Notre Dame Stadium lit up their cellphones, carrying on a recently-started tradition they brought with them from Between the Hedges.
(Notably absent was Georgia’s English bulldog, Uga X, because of a ridiculous Notre Dame rule not allowing live mascots in its stadium. Perhaps UGA should institute a Sanford Stadium ban on guys wearing leprechaun outfits before the 2019 return match in Athens.)
Looking ahead, the question marks that hung over Georgia’s offense (particularly the offensive line and play-calling) in preseason remain unanswered, and the Dawgs are again having to live through a freshman quarterback’s learning curve (at least, until Eason returns).
But, at least the defense is living up to advance billing, despite having to move folks around in the secondary because of Malkom Parrish’s injury.
The defensive front looked particularly impressive against Notre Dame’s behemoth offensive line and shifty dual-threat QB, Brandon Wimbush.
Is that going to be enough to carry the Dawgs until the offense can improve sufficiently to hold up its end? Pondering that question is likely to give UGA fans (and coaches) a few sleepless nights.